Name: Holly Wellington aka Holysseus Fly
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current Release: Ishmael Ensemble's new single "The Rebuke" is out via Seven Songs.
If you enjoyed this interview with Holysseus Fly of Ishmael Ensemble and would like to stay up to date on her music and releases, visit her on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
Your cancer diagnosis fell right into a time of great expectations and opportunities for Ishmael Ensemble. Tell me a bit about that phase, please. How do you look back on the early years of the group?
I was diagnosed right before I was meant to go on my first tour with Ishmael Ensemble with the release of our debut album, A State of Flow.
I remember I got a call from Pete, telling me not to worry about my place in the band, he assured me that although I wouldn’t be able to make the whole tour, I had two beautiful tracks coming out with them.
Pete and the whole band were so kind and considerate towards me, so although it was a really difficult time, I hold those memories very close to my heart.
“The Rebuke” was written during chemo treatment. How did you approach writing the lyrics?
That's right, “The Rebuke” is composed of 7 repeating lines I wrote around the same time as “Empty Hands” and “January” from the Visions of Light album - whilst I was undergoing treatment for Breast Cancer in 2019.
The poem confronts the injustice of the situation I was feeling at the time. It is a calling on someone you love when you need help, and them doing all they can to save you, like parent to child.
Expressing these feelings within the song was a great source of comfort and catharsis. It also felt pretty powerful to layer it up with 3 part stacked harmonies towards the end.
Despite your health issues, you managed to take part in several live dates, including your debut Glastonbury!
This was before I was playing keys in the shows, I was singing in only a few songs during the set at the time so the band could work without me. Any dates that fell in-between chemo sessions, when I was feeling okay, I tried to make.
Though this was only possible with the help of my parents as during chemotherapy you become immunocompromised, so needed to avoid crowds. My parents moved in with me when I got diagnosed and drove to me to every show and back again so I could spend as much time as possible in the car. It was kind of like covid, I couldn’t hug anyone! I was so fortunate to have them, otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible for me at all.
Our Birmingham Hare and Hounds show was fun, but our Glastonbury gig was a real highlight. We had never played there before, I’d never even been before but had always wanted to go. They made special allowances so my dad could drive me in and out, we were very grateful to be able to do that. I made a little speech on the mic at the show too, I promised I would be back to that beautiful place.
This year we returned to play the West Holts stage. I feel very blessed.
Did the music of other artists offer you concrete solace during this time? If so, what made it so helpful in that situation?
Oh yes very much so! I listened to worship music a lot during treatment in hospital, I found that very comforting, it sort of lifted me out of there. I also fell in love with Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky”, I have so many videos on my phone of me singing and playing it - I love the lyrics to that song.
I also had Tiny Desk concerts playing on repeat, especially Moses Sumney, Noname, NAO and Daniel Caesar. I had a lot of time to dig into music that gave me the “feeling”, you know when music sounds transcendent, it gives you those goosebumps.
How was the creative process in working with Pete to combine the lyrics with the music?
I always find this fun and interesting, I really enjoy Pete’s creative process.
I brought the melody and lyrics to Pete, I think it was a little bit wordier originally, he cut out some connecting words and simplifies things. I can be quite wordy, which works in other pieces and I can go for it within my own music. But as someone with mild dyslexia, I do enjoy someone helping piece together my words as they can get muddled.
Music wise, I was listening to a lot of Flying Lotus at the time of writing this song, the chords are very inspired by his voicings, plus I’m a sucker for chromatic movement.
I remember the end section, I improvised some piano in a session at Pete’s old flat with more of this major feel, it felt like a calming of the storm.
You just finished up a run of summer festival dates with the band and have a UK tour coming up next month. How did it feel to be back in a band gigging in a live music setting, particularly after the last couple of years of lockdown?
I’m really loving it. For me, I feel very different as I’ve been working on my craft during the lockdown. I worked with an incredible vocal coach, Hannah Williams who has helped with my vocal confidence and broadening my technique.
Though it was definitely nerve wracking at first getting back into it, the pre-gig jitters have gotten much easier as I feel a lot more secure.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. What do you express through music that you perhaps couldn’t or wouldn’t express in your day-to-day life?
Through music you can turn darkness into light, you can take a painful experience and turn it into something beautiful. It’s an incredibly liberating feeling.
I believe that art is truth and that telling our stories in our own terms is the most empowering thing we can do. If I put my life experiences into song, and someone feels connection / relief / peace/ love / joy etc ... then I’ve done something right.
That’s what I receive from the music that I love, it’s this otherworldly force.